Thursday, October 6, 2011

Darioush Winery (Napa Valley)

We finished at Caymus early and had a little time to kill so we decided to make an impromptu stop at Darioush Winery. The architecture at Darioush Winery is Persian-inspired and definitely evoked feelings of grandeur as we walked up. As we entered the tasting room, its high ceiling created a very breezy atrium with walls lined with designer merchandise. They also displayed a number of large magnum bottles with which we had a lot of fun taking pictures. The room was packed but we found a quiet corner to begin our wine tasting.

We selected their signature flight where you got to taste 5 wines for $35 (they also have an option of 2 for $18). It's a little on the pricey side for a tasting but if you buy two bottles, the tasting is comped which I thought was a nice touch. The three of us shared two tastings and it was just right for us (we've already been drinking and we knew we had a lot more coming up!) We started with the 2010 Signature Viognier ($39/bottle), followed by the 2009 Signature Chardonnay ($43/bottle) and the 2008 Signature Merlot ($46/bottle). They were all easy to drink, but unfortunately I didn't think any of them were that distinct or memorable. One could probably find similar wines for a much lower price. The last two flights were the Signature Cabernet Sauvignons, one from 2006 and the other from 2008 (both $88/bottle). The 2008 vintage, even though it was younger, was actually smoother than the 2006.

Overall Darioush was a fun winery to visit. The architecture and space are cool to check out, especially for out-of-towners. The wines are pretty easy to drink but all of their wines are on the pricier side, and one can probably find similar wines at a lower price.

Darioush Winery
4240 Silverado Trl

Napa, CA 94558
(707) 257-2345

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Caymus Vineyards (Napa Valley)

The first stop of our Napa Valley wine tour was Caymus Vineyards in Rutherford. I know Caymus makes great wines but I didn't really know much about them. The only time I have had Caymus wine was a few years back at a friend's wedding. I don't remember which vintage I had (there were a lot of wines flowing that night lol) but I just remember that it had a very unique taste and reminded me of roasted coffee beans. I remember liking it so I was looking forward to trying it again.

As we pulled up to the tasting room, it looked very rustic with vines covering the building. The tasting area wasn't very big inside but we were told that there were other tasting rooms in the building. We did the $15 tasting, which included a selection of wines from the Wagner Family of Wines (with different members of the family directing the different labels) and not just from Caymus. We started with the Mer Soleil 2010 Silver, Unoaked Chardonnay, which comes from Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County. I've never never had unoaked wines before and the Chardonnay was extremely light and crisp, vs. the more buttery texture that I've often found in other Chardonnays. The second wine we had was the Belle Glos 2009 Pinot Noir. Unfortunately I found that one to be not very memorable.

We quickly continued on to the next wine, the Caymus 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. I was really excited because I thought this was the wine I had a few years ago and I couldn't wait to drink it again. After a quick sip, I was disappointed... Did I remember wrong or could a different vintage make such a big difference? Don't get wrong, the Cab was delicious but it tasted nothing like I remembered so I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed. Just as I thought we were done, the staff pulled out another bottle from behind the counter and asked if we would like to try the 2009 Special Selection Cab. We happily obliged of course. And as I took a whiff of the aroma, I knew that this was the one I had a few years ago and sure enough, one sip brings out the rich, full-bodied flavor with just a hint of coffee (others call it mocha). Now that I've solved the mystery of what I had, I was satisfied... :)

Caymus Vineyards
8700 Conn Creek Rd

Rutherford, CA 94573
(707) 967-3010

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Oakville Grocery (Napa Valley) - with Recipe!

Two separate groups of friends were visiting from out of town, and Napa Valley was definitely on their itinerary. I ended up going to Napa Valley twice in one weekend (a record for me lol) but had two extremely fun but completely different experiences. I am going to spend the next few posts on some of the places we visited since it seems that I haven't written about any places in Napa at all.

On my first trip, we started early in the day and had a full day of wine-tastings booked so we didn't really have time to stop for lunch. We just stopped at Oakville Grocery for some quick bites and we were on our way. Oakville Grocery is a cute little market on the way to many of the popular wineries in Napa Valley. It carries a number of gourmet items and it's a great stop to pick up sandwiches, cheeses, etc. if you want to do a picnic. Even though we know their sandwiches are great, we opted for some salads since we wanted something lighter. I got the chicken salad and it was delicious. The chicken was moist and the sauce was pretty light. It was surprisingly filling and I'm glad I loaded up on protein because we had many wine-tastings ahead of us!

I'm also including a recipe in here (first time on my blog!) that I got from Oakville Grocery ( I wanted to find their chicken salad recipe but it wasn't on their website but I saw this chicken skewer recipe that looked really good so I wanted to share with my readers:

Sesame Chicken Skewers

1 lb. boneless, skinless Chicken Breast, cut into 10-12 strips


1/2 cup Buttermilk
1 lg. Egg, beaten
1 tsp. Chili Paste or Hot Sauce
1 tsp. Salt

Dry Ingredients

1 cup all purpose Flour
1/2 cup Pecans, chopped fine
1/2 tsp ground Black Pepper
1 tsp Salt
1/4 tsp Cayenne Pepper
1 tsp dried Thyme
1 tsp Paprika
1/4 cup Sesame Seeds
1/4 cup Black Sesame Seeds

Dipping Sauce

1/3 cup Oakville's Apricot Preserves Seasonal Selection
1/3 cup Oakville's Sherry, Garlic & Herb Mustard

Marinate chicken for up to one hour before cooking.

Skewer each piece lengthwise on bamboo skewers.

Roll marinated chicken in dry ingredients and let stand for 1/2 hour in the refrigerator.

Bake on oiled cookie sheets, turning chicken to coat in oil at 425 degrees for 12-15 minutes.

Pulse Dipping Sauce ingredients in a food processor until smooth. Serve at room temperature.

Oakville Grocery
7856 St. Helena Hwy
Oakville, CA 94562
(707) 944-8802

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sons & Daughters (San Francisco)

Tucked away on Bush St, Sons & Daughters serves up an inspired menu full of fresh local ingredients. When you walk in, you can see into the small kitchen and the dining room is decorated with classic paintings over the fireplace. Overall it feels very cozy and warm.

When I went (which was a little while back - yes I know I am behind lol!), they offered both a prix-fixe menu, four courses for $48, as well as an a la carte menu. I heard they have changed it to prix-fixe only now at a higher price but the food is still inspiring.

The dinner started off with an amuse bouche of oysters with cucumber water, which was nicely done and very refreshing. I had wanted to try Sons & Daughters because I heard that they had lobster sashimi as an appetizer, but sadly, the night I went they already changed their menu and no longer offered it. Instead, I ordered the seared foie gras since I normally would never give up a chance to eat foie gras! There is a supplemental fee of $5 for the foie, but it was a generaous cut and definitely worth the price.

What was interesting was that for dessert they offered foie gras with apples, lemon verbana, and almonds. I can never say no to foie gras! The concept might have sounded great but the execution was a little lacking. It was basically a chilled foie gras terrine mixed with fruits and nuts. Personally, I'd prefer something that exemplifies the essence of dessert. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy the unique concepts but this dish felt more like a heavy appetizer than a nice way to finish off the meal.

Nonetheless, I had a nice meal that didn't break the bank. Even though they have increased their prices, the food is definitely still worth trying out. Be sure to make a reservation though since this restaurant has gained much popularity and is very small. Bon Appetit!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

End of El Bulli (elBulli) as we know it...

As I write this, the chefs at El Bulli are busily preparing to serve their last meals ever at the restaurant.
With legendary chef Ferran Adrià moving about the kitchen giving instructions, the 45 chefs are turning out dish after dish of wildest culinary imagination. Yes, El Bulli is closing today and it is the end of an era. Widely regarded as the best restaurant in the world, El Bulli has long been the culinary Mecca for foodies, and its chef, Ferran Adrià, has long been considered the father of modern gastronomy and is often compared to Dalí and Picasso. Millions of requests are sent from all over the globe every year for a chance to get one of the 8,000 seatings that the restaurant serves during the 6 months that it is open. And when Ferran Adrià announced that he was closing the restaurant to reopen as a culinary think tank of sorts in 2014, the frenzy hit a fever pitch.

A handful of friends and I have sent in our requests over the years, but none of us have had any luck getting a table. Knowing that the restaurant was closing soon, I sent in my request earlier in the year without too much hope. So when I woke up one Saturday morning to see an email from El Bulli informing me that I have secured a reservation, I was ecstatic! I booked the trip without hesitation and we flew to Spain for an experience of a lifetime.

When our group of 6 arrived at the restaurant, the staff greeted us warmly and offered a tour of the kitchen, where we met Chef Ferran Adrià, who was very friendly and took time out amidst instructing his chefs to chat with us and pose for pictures. Behind us, many chefs (45, we were told) bustled around the kitchen, prepping for an evening of 48 courses. Yes, 48 courses. The staff informed us that we can choose to see the menu of be surprised – we opted to be surprised of course. And thus begin a night of culinary magic. Here are some highlights:

To start our meal, the staff led us outside to the patio, which had a beautiful view of the water, for some cocktails. Of course, even the aperitifs were done Ferran Adrià-style. We began with “pillow like a cocktail,” which is their version of Piña Colada, consisting of rum ice cubes, freeze-dried pineapple chunks, and dippin’ dot-like coconut ice cream encased in cotton candy-like exterior. As we tore off bites and popped them into our mouths, the components melted and the flavors mixed to become a very strong drink!

The next “drink” was called “mojito and apple flute” but it just looked like a sandwich to me. Basically it was a mint mojito slush sandwiched between two baguette-like “bread.” Even though we ate it as if it were a sandwich, the flavors blended together as soon as it hit the tongue and became a mojito.

Just two un-cocktail-like drinks later, I was already starting to feel buzzed. (Yes, I’m a lightweight!) They served another drink called the “gin fizz,” where a swirl of warm foam was piped on top of icy gin slush and lemon zest. The warmness of the foam contrasted well against the icy cold gin and the flavors blended to deliver another scrumptious drink.

Of course you can’t have cocktails without some olives! A plate of “spherical olives” appeared on our table along with a jar filled with more olives. We were told to eat the olives whole and the bubble exploded in the mouth bursting with flavors of olive.

After a few more courses of amuse bouches (although arguably the whole meal felt like a series of amuse-bouches), we were led to our table inside the restaurant, which reminded me of going to someone’s house in the countryside. We were seated at a large table designed for 8, and we lamented the fact that we could have invited 2 more people to enjoy this experience with us! They set two large white orbs on our table for us to share, and as we ooh’ed and aah’ed over it, they cracked the egg-like sphere and shaved what looked like nutmeg onto it. This was the “gorgonzola balloon” and it tasted like a very light version of the cheese and it melted quickly on the tongue.

Hard to believe but we were only on the 9th course out of a 48-course marathon. It was a wonderful start to an unforgettable experience. Please stay tuned for the next installment of my El Bulli adventure…

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Noma (Copenhagen)

(This is a long overdue post to celebrate the 4th anniversary of my website, but I guess this will be a pre-celebration of the 5th anniversary LOL...)

Tucked away in a dimly lit harbor, Noma exhibits the same characteristics that can be found in its food: understated yet charming, unassuming yet whimsical. We could only score a reservation at 10 pm so it was really dark already and it took us forever to find the restaurant, but we were just happy to be there. (We later learned that the restaurant is actually in a restored warehouse on the waterfront and the view is quite nice during the day... I'll just have to come back during the day next time!)

Noma, whose name means Nordisk (Nordic) + Mad (food), is the newly minted "best restaurant in the world" by Restaurant Magazine and knocked off El Bulli, which had held the number one spot for the previous four years. After dining there, I can understand why it's getting showered with accolades. They reinterpret traditional Nordic cuisine by combining high-quality locally-sourced ingredients, harmonious presentation, innovative techniques -- all with a twist that is at the same time surprising and quirky.

When we first got there, our table was not ready, so they invited us to sit in the bar area while they brought out the amuse-bouche. The first amuse-bouche was brought out in a porcelain egg and our server told us that we need to eat it immediately once we open the porcelain egg. When we opened the egg, we found two small quail eggs inside sitting on top of straws. The eggs were marinated in apple vinegar and then smoked over apple wood. When you eat the egg whole, the smoke flavor and the yolk burst into your mouth and blend well together.

The next amuse-bouche they brought was a reinterpretation of the traditional Danish open sandwich. Smoked cheese blended with lumpfish roe sat between their version of the rugbrød and chicken skin crackers (how can you go wrong with chicken skin crackers?) When you bite into it, you at once experience the crispy skin, the bitter rye, the creamy cheese, all contrasting one another yet working well together at the same time.

Then they brought out a third amuse-bouche - in a flower pot. It looked like a real plant, with green leaves sprouting out of a dark soil (okay, it was super dark in the restaurant). We were told that everything was edible in the pot, and we pulled out a radish by its leaves. The mulch was made of malt, beer, and hazelnut, while the cream underneath was sheep's yogurt with tarragon, chives, and chervil. We were digging through the "soil" to make sure we get every last drop of the cream. Hey, who says you can't play with your food?

Then a fourth snack came out. By now, we started to wonder that if we were ever going to get to our table, but then we decided, hey as long as they keep the food coming, we are happy. It was cracker and salmon roe cream and vinegar powder. The sourness of the vinegar provided a nice contrast to the roe, but I think it would have gone even better with the crispy chicken skin crackers LOL!

We had already been in Copenhagen for a couple of days before we came to Noma, and while we thought Copenhagen was very nice, both C and I agreed that it's a city you really only need to visit once. But as we tasted our amuse-bouche (mind you that we haven't even sat down at our table yet), both C and I said that we would come back again to Copenhagen JUST to come back to Noma. In fact, as we were sampling the snacks, C texted her then-boyfriend (now-husband) that he needs to come to Noma. He texted back "book a table - we'll go." She asked the server if she could book a table to come back, and they found a lunch opening for her 6-weeks out (they were completely booked for dinner for the next three months, not surprising). She took the reservation immediately and they flew back 6 weeks later (she didn't even think she would ever come back to Copenhagen just earlier that day LOL...) I was jealous - I wish I lived closer so that I could go back that soon too! (They live in London, so even though it's not that close, it's still a lot closer than SF...)

I digress... back to the food. :)

After the four snacks, they finally invite us to sit down. Promptly they brought out some warm bread in a square felt pouch. There were two kinds of bread: Manitoba sourdough and spelt, accompanied by two spreads: butter and pork fat with pumpkin seeds. Pork fat all the way baby!

It was probably closer to 11 by then, and unfortunately our server informed us that we could only do the shorter 7-course menu (they also have a 12-course menu) since it was so late already. We were disappointed but we were excited to try even just the 7-course. The server told my friend that she could do the long menu the next time she comes back (which she did of course). I guess I will just have to wait until the next time I'm back to Copenhagen...

The first course was a local razor clam wrapped in parsley jelly with horseradish snow. The server then proceeded to pour the juice of clam mixed with dill oil over the plate. The razor clam was tender and sweet while the parsley jelly provided a cool contrast. The horseradish snow was an interesting accompaniment to the dish which is a nod to the traditional horseradish that often comes with shellfish.

We were told that the second course is a Noma classic - steak tartare topped with wood sorrel with pepper and tarragon emulsion. Apparently they used to use musk ox, but now it's just Danish beef but no complaints here. The presentation is supposed to evoke the image of the animal grazing across the green pasture. No utensils were brought to us, and the server instructed us to eat with our hands by grabbing some of the wood sorrel and beef and graze it across the pepper and tarragon. The roughly cut beef was flavorful and the lemony taste of the wood sorrel accentuated the other flavors. I could eat this all day.

Next, they brought out a single langoustine sitting on top of a warm rock for our third course. This is not just any langoustine though - it is the single, most perfectly cooked langoustine, accompanied by a seawater emulsion that is flavored with oyster and parsley and surrounded by a mushroom and seaweed powder. This is in line with the thoughtful presentation in Noma's food: while the steak tartare showcased the beauty of the land, this course exhibited the profoundness of the sea. Again, we were instructed to eat with no hands, and as we smeared the langoustine around in the powder and emulsion, you feel like you can taste all the saltwater and mineral and it was like you are swimming in the ocean and you found a langoustine and just put it in your mouth. This was the most memorable dish for me from the entire night.

Our next dish was the poached baby pike with celery root, roasted celery root puree, celery, mustard green, and elderberry flower capers. The fish was tender and delicate while the vegetables gave it a nice contrast, but for all those who know me, I've never been a big fan of cooked fish (I only like my fish sashimi style :) so this was just an okay dish for me. Or maybe because all the previous dishes were so good, this one paled in comparison. Either way, one "so-so" dish out of many excellent ones is still great in my book.

Then they brought out a cool looking knife in a leather sheath and we were excited because we knew some kind of meat must be coming. Our fifth course was a poached pork belly. It was poached in a 58-degree pot for 8 hours, then glazed in the pan, then topped with onions, potato, capers, and served with a grilled cucumber. The pork belly had the perfect amount of crispy fat on top and it was tender and juicy. The toppings added a nice crisp to the meat and we savored every last bite.

We were sad to know that was the end of our savory courses but we looked forward to dessert. They brought out the cutest dessert that we have ever seen! The theme was winter wonderland and they proudly informed us that this will be the last ones they are serving this season as winter is coming to a close. Sitting amidst a plate of yogurt snow and carrot puree is a snowman, made out of lemon meringue as its bottom, carrot sorbet in the middle, seabuckthorn berry as the head, and a thin sliver of carrot sticking out as its nose. Our server explained to us that the seabuckthorn berry is a tiny berry but it packs as much vitamin C as an orange. It was a bit sour but refreshing. I liked the yogurt snow and the meringue as well, but I think I'm just not a really big fan of carrots, especially when used in dessert. The whole presentation was just too cute to eat though!

Our second dessert was walnut powder with freeze-dried berries and freeze-dried buttermilk. It was light and a good way to end the meal, although I have to admit that by this time I was thinking that there has been a lot of powder on the dishes... :P We did have one last thing: a petit-four that was Noma's salute to a very popular dessert in Denmark, the chocolate-covered marshmallow. Their version was a chocolate-covered beet root meringue, which had an interesting flavor but was a bit too sweet for my taste. It was a good thing that we ordered some tea, and they brought us their house blended infusion which was aromatic and soothing. It was the perfect end to the evening.

But wait, how can we walk away from such an amazing meal without showing our gratitude to the chefs? We asked to see if we could get a tour of the kitchen, and they graciously agreed. They have an open kitchen that you can see from the dining area, but they let us actually walk into the kitchen and showed us the different stations. They were all cleaning up by then, but the chefs still took the time to chat with us and posed for pictures (sorry I'm not posting those pictures because I'm in all of them :). The entire experience was magical for us and I can't wait to go back!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Vitrine (San Francisco)

Vitrine is located on the fourth floor of the St. Regis Hotel (125 3rd Street) and has a nice, airy feel. I'm always looking for a nice lunch place in SF since many of the higher-end restaurants tend to have only dinner service. Vitrine, on the other hand, is only open for breakfast and lunch/brunch (one can go to Ame on the ground floor, which is only open for dinner). The lunch menu changes daily, but the one thing they always have is their Organic Beef Burger, which came highly recommended.

After starting with a light salad, I decided that I have to try the burger, which one could get with or without a fried egg on top. I opted to get it with the fried egg, which I knew was going to get messy, but hey, as long as the food is good I don't mind a little mess. The burger came with all the usual fixings, including lettuce, tomato, cheese, onion, and pickle. It also came with fried potato chips, which is Vitrine's version of french fries. The burger was juicy and the fried egg added a different texture. It was a good burger but not quite a "I must come back and have it again soon" burger. My companion got a seared tuna salad, which was beautifully presented and she said it was quite flavorful. Overall, Vitrine delivers solid food and has potential to be a good lunch spot, but the restaurant may have a tough time expanding their clientele beyond hotel guests since there are many other options in the area.